Sunday, June 6, 2010

#24: The Flight of the Intellectuals

In March 2009, Paul Berman sat down for an interview with Z Word, a self-described "editorially independent" project of the American Jewish Committee. Topics discussed included the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza and Berman's thoughts on President Barack Obama's track record in his first few months in office. In regards to the latter, Berman stated, "I'm enthused by Obama. And, in my enthusiasm, I find myself thinking: this election has been the most inspiring event in American history."

These are unsurprising words, spoken as they were by a leftist writer. And yet they are key, I think, to uncovering one of the major errors Berman makes in his latest book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, which hit bookstores just over a month ago. To understand what Berman's comment illustrates about the weaknesses in his own writings, it is necessary to revisit a rather notorious episode in Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

As inevitably befalls every presidential candidate at some point, Obama fell victim to the occasional campaign gaffe (though he had fewer than most). Most notable among these blips was the Reverend Jeremiah Wright imbroglio. The president's former pastor, in various comments and sermons, referred to the September 11 attacks as "America's chickens...coming home to roost" and, during the course of an anti-government rant, proclaimed, "God damn America -- that's in the Bible -- for killing innocent people. God damn America, for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America, as long as she tries to act like she is God, and she is supreme."

Initially, while repudiating Wright's most politically dangerous stances, Obama refused to entirely abandon the pastor, arguing that "it's as if we took the five dumbest things that I ever said or you ever our lives and compressed them, and put them out there, you know, I think that people's reaction would be understandably upset." Later, after Obama had further distanced himself from the pastor, Wright was quoted by the Daily Press castigating the White House staff for preventing him from contacting the president: "Them Jews ain't going to let him talk to me." In the same interview he commented on the perceived influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a prominent Jewish lobbying organization, over Obama's public stances, saying, "Ethnic cleansing is going on in Gaza. Ethnic cleansing (by) the Zionist is a sin and a crime against humanity, and they don't want Barack talking like that because that's anti-Israel." Obama once again publicly rejected Wright's inflammatory statements, this time with more severity: "[Reverend Wright's comments] certainly don’t portray accurately my values and beliefs. And if Reverend Wright thinks that that’s political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn’t know me very well."

And yet therein lay the problem: Wright did know Obama, and quite well, in fact. They had been friends, or at the very least acquaintances, since meeting in 1985 -- a moment Obama described in his memoir, Dreams from My Father. In that same book, Obama fondly recalls a sermon in which Wright proclaimed, "It is this world...where white folks' greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another hemisphere...That's the world!" (Obama titled his later, more famous, book, The Audacity of Hope, after a sermon delivered by the reverend.) The pastor had performed Barack and Michelle Obama's marriage and their children's baptisms, and the Obamas were members of his church. According to the Chicago Tribune, as recently as 2007, Obama said of Wright, "He's...a sounding board for me to make sure that I am speaking as truthfully about what I believe as possible and that I'm not losing myself in some of the hype and hoopla and stress that's involved in national politics." In short, Wright was as much Barack Obama's mentor and friend as he was his pastor.

Why does this matter? Or why, furthermore, do the forty-fourth president's (very thin) ties to William Ayers, co-founder of the violent Weather Underground, matter? The answer, for many (though not all) rational observers, is that they do not. Barack Obama's firm disavowal of their radical ideas and even, at times, the very people espousing them obviated the need for concern as to his own ideology. Since taking office, Obama's decisions could be criticized (or defended) on a variety of fronts, but few would seriously argue that his policies reflect radical or racist beliefs.

Given Paul Berman's own unequivocal enthusiasm for Barack Obama, it would seem clear that the Terror and Liberalism author understands this principle well. And yet he just as easily discards it when confronting the personage, and persona, of Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan. The Flight of the Intellectuals is, in essence, a 299-page crusade (and I do not use this word lightly) against a man that many consider a symbol of the future of moderate Islam.

As a disclaimer, I admit that, prior to reading Berman's book, I knew nothing of Tariq Ramadan. I am thus unqualified to debate most finer points of substantive critiques of his ideology. Instead, I take issue with Paul Berman's methodology. The Flight of the Intellectuals circumscribes, with lengthy digressions liberally scattered, a single feature article on Tariq Ramadan, written in 2007 by Dutch journalist Ian Buruma for The New York Times Magazine. From the outset of Berman's book, it became readily apparent that generous assumptions and tenuous affiliations would happily substitute for logical proof of wrongdoing. Even before the end of the first chapter, Berman had already stated, curiously, "It is not obvious to me that Buruma...had read very much by Ramadan, nor that [Stéphanie Giry, who favorably reviewed a Ramadan book]...had read more than a single book, though she had met the man. As for Garton Ash [who wrote positively of Ramadan], he intimated...that he based his estimation of Ramadan on having heard him speak at Oxford, where Garton Ash and Ramadan have been colleagues -- which suggests that Garton Ash may have read nothing at all."

My initial reaction, having also previously read nothing by Paul Berman, was surprise at what seemed to me an illogical progression. A journalist who had worked alongside Ramadan and praised him in writing was unlikely to have read any of the latter man's books? This, however, was merely the first volley in a prolonged onslaught of perplexing statements by Berman, who is either incapable of or disinterested in producing anything other than circumstantial evidence incriminating Ramadan as a dangerous radical. Just pages after his bizarre comments on Buruma, Giry, and Ash, Berman launched into a history of Hassan al-Banna, Ramadan's grandfather and the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, in which he emphasized his ties to the Palestinian, pro-Nazi Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Then, immediately segueing into an account of Ramadan's doctoral dissertation on al-Banna, which only passed after a second review (the committee felt it was too obsequious to his grandfather), Berman implies that Ramadan's thesis was unworthy of academic recognition, writing, "Even then, his thesis barely passed -- accepted without honors. The dispute...was an academic quarrel, but also more than academic -- a dispute, ultimately, over the meaning of al-Banna's Islamic renewal movement in the past and its legacy for today."

The next sentence states, simply, "I have not read Ramadan's thesis." Berman quickly follows up by announcing that he has, however, read one of Ramadan's books, The Roots of the Muslim Renewal, which includes (in Berman's estimation) a 200-page "gusher of adulation" for Hassan al-Banna. "Does the portrait of al-Banna in The Roots of the Muslim Renewal resemble in any significant way Ramadan's university dissertation? Then I can understand why the academic committee would have balked." Unfortunately for his readers, Berman failed to conduct this most basic tenet of research, consulting the text itself, to actually evaluate its objectivity.

Interspersed throughout Berman's dissection of Tariq Ramadan are frequent history lessons on Hassan al-Banna, his ties to Haj Amin al-Husseini, al-Husseini's ties to the Nazis, and so on. These forays are usually followed by an abrupt and unannounced return to a discussion of Ramadan in the present day. As a writer, Berman has to know that the effect of juxtaposing these journeys into the past against portrayals of Tariq Ramadan today is to implicitly link the Muslim intellectual to far more extremist Islamists of yore. And yet he does not caution against subconsciously drawing these connecting lines; instead he facilitates the practice by continually jumping back and forth, establishing a mental footpath that ever expands with each round trip between Tariq Ramadan of today and Hassan al-Banna and his Nazi sympathizers of the past.

One of Berman's favorite contemporary targets is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim sheikh and author whose works Ramadan frequently cites. Al-Qaradawi's speeches on Al Jazeera TV are unapologetically political; unfortunately, they have also been known to be anti-Semitic. "Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption," al-Qaradawi declared early last year. "The last punishment was carried out by Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them -- even though they exaggerated this issue -- he managed to put them in their place." Berman makes great hay of al-Qaradawi's virulent racism in an attempt to portray Ramadan as in league with him. Ramadan himself, in a disturbing essay, once singled out several Jewish intellectuals (and one other besides, whom he mistakenly identified as Jewish) for what he deemed a heavily biased support of Israel. Aside from that uncharacteristic moment, however, Ramadan has made himself clear in regards to his own stance on anti-Semitism. In 2005, he wrote, "In the name of their faith and their conscience, Muslims must take a clear position so that a pernicious atmosphere does not take hold in the Western countries. Nothing in Islam can legitimize xenophobia or the rejection of a human being due to his/her religious creed or ethnicity. One must say unequivocally, with force, that anti-Semitism is unacceptable and indefensible." 

Berman, undeterred, presses on. He lambasts Ramadan for downplaying or bypassing his grandfather's unsavory contemporaries, as if by neglecting to detail every last particle of al-Banna's transgressions, Ramadan himself is implicated in his ancestor's sins. Berman also takes issue with Ramadan's claim that al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, the much more famous -- and more radical -- Muslim thinker, did not know each other, insinuating that this was merely semantics on Ramadan's part; al-Banna's assassination, Berman insists, "interrupted a developing mutual interest. It stands to reason that, but for the assassination, Qutb and al-Banna would have ended up comrades and, at least, acquaintances." Strangely, Berman considers pure speculation a preferable alternative to stated fact, a tendency he exhibits throughout The Flight of the Intellectuals. 

This is where the lesson of Barack Obama and Reverend Jeremiah Wright comes into play. Paul Berman was somehow able to disregard decades of friendship between an anti-Semitic, politically radical minister and the future leader of the free world, based largely on public denunciations made (only reluctantly) by Obama. And yet Berman refuses to extend to Tariq Ramadan the same benefit of the doubt; "Ramadan worships Qaradawi," he says. Pankaj Mishra, in the June 7 edition of The New Yorker, aptly captures the absurdity of Berman's use of that verb, writing, "But Berman reads volumes into Ramadan's silences and pursues him with inquisitorial zeal...He says that Ramadan not just 'admires' but 'worships' Qaradawi, although the citations of Ramadan that he produces to illustrate this claim reveal nothing more fervent than the standard lexicon of scholarly attribution." 

In his desperate attempts to equate the beliefs of others to those of Tariq Ramadan, Paul Berman failed to notice his own inconsistencies. Guilt by affiliation cannot be applied randomly. If Ramadan's "scholarly attribution" of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, as viewed through Berman's prejudicial prism, constitutes "worship," then certainly Barack Obama, who for years counted a racist and anti-American radical among his friends, is a dangerous subversive unfit to govern the United States. And Obama's is only one saga among countless others, in which a prominent public figure is discovered to have had some connection or even friendship with unsavory individuals. It is not that these linkages should be ignored, but neither should they be perceived as all-encompassing indictments of one's character.

And yet, incomprehensibly, Berman views Ramadan's acquaintances as sufficient damning evidence of the intellectual's innate radicalism. At times, Berman's tone -- which, though difficult to pin down, effectively hovers between academic and journalistic -- betrays a callous distaste not only for Ramadan, but for a Muslim audience overall. In describing Ramadan's biography of the Prophet Muhammad, Berman writes, "The Prophet himself is presented as a nice person. Muhammad adores his first wife: 'He loved her so much.' Also his other wives." Elsewhere, in delineating Ramadan's views on terrorism, Berman lists four primary points, and then adds, "And perhaps his message contains yet another element, which is not hard to detect in some of his writings, to the effect that: 5) who are you to question Tariq Ramadan about terrorism? Are you a racist? A notorious Zionist? An enemy of Islam? And Hassan al-Banna was the greatest figure of the last one hundred fifty years, and Said Ramadan [Tariq's father] was a pious and heroic Muslim, and long live Sheikh Qaradawi, the mufti of martyrdom operations!" This is shameful writing, and even worse investigative work. At this point, it probably goes without saying that Berman makes no attempt to identify which of "some of his writings" demonstrate such hysterical sentiments. As Dwight Garner of The New York Times noted, "[Paul Berman is] self-congratulatory about his coups of reading and synthesis, his turning up of important details in other people’s footnotes. Yet his own book has no foot- or endnotes at all."

In fact, Berman's inexplicably laserlike antipathy towards Ramadan begs the question of what motivations may be lurking behind his own pen. Of especial importance to Berman are unresolved questions as to Ramadan's comportment towards Jewish peoples. This is understandable, given militant Islamism's tendency to cast its political struggles with Israel in an ethnic (and thus, often racist) light. But Ramadan is no militant; and while he is firmly anti-Zionist, with the glaring exception of his essay calling out Jewish thinkers, Ramadan appears to see this label as a political statement against Israeli policies towards Arabs, not a racial statement against the Jewish people themselves. To this end, he has written, "The respect that we have towards Judaism should not be subject to suspicion once we denounce the unjust policies of the state of Israel." 

But let us return to Paul Berman. Why is he so eager to implicate Ramadan as a member of the anti-Semitic Islamist right-wing? Perhaps this is due to his own boundaries with regards to criticism of the state of Israel. To be clear, Berman has explicitly condemned Israeli actions at times (e.g. "I've never had any patience for West Bank settlements," he says at one point; elsewhere, "The Israelis have committed all kinds of crimes and have done all kinds of terrible things. And when the Israelis have done something terrible we should condemn it. I condemn it."), but he is not so keen on others doing the same; and this reluctance extends to many varieties of criticism. In his interview with Z Word, Berman commented extensively on the Gaza incursion that winter and, in the process, revealed a paradigm of thinking that was notably sympathetic to the Israeli government, at a time when its actions were the recipient of near-universal condemnation. 

Berman was asked, "Do you think Israel used disproportionate force against Hamas?" Not only did he refuse to answer the question directly (confusingly, he claimed it represented "something of a logical bind"), he then launched into a long tangent about Israeli policies that ultimately put the onus on the nation's enemies for all of its foreign policy crises: "An Iran without a nuclear program would be in no danger of Israeli attack. Here is an impending war that rests on a single variable. Why not alter the variable? Equally obvious: Israel is not going to launch a war against any of the groups on its own borders that remain at peace. Why not do everything possible to disarm those groups?" Then, foreshadowing the embrace of assumptive reasoning that would become a staple of The Flight of the Intellectuals, Berman attempted to link a century-old, notorious anti-Semitic forgery with a contemporary study by respected academics. "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is not a sophisticated document," Berman states. "But Walt and Mearsheimer's book 'The Israel Lobby' is (in some people's view) a sophisticated document. And the sophisticated document makes the unsophisticated one seem like it is on to something."

But perhaps most enlightening was Berman's answer to the question, "Are you suggesting that human rights activists are now acting in the service of an antisemitic agenda?" He immediately refutes anti-Semitism as a possibility, but then proceeds to hew to the official Israeli state line on human rights organizations in general. "I do think that, in some of the human rights reports on Israeli military action in the past, you could see a kind of in-built analytic distortion. The human rights investigators work up analyses of what they ascertain to be facts; but their notion of facts excludes political motivations. And yet, if you ignore the political reasoning behind certain kinds of violent acts, you really cannot account for what has happened." It would be interesting to discover what sort of jurisdiction human rights organizations could be expected to exert if politics were taken out of the equation. The Darfur conflict, after all, is a civil war and, as such, is subject to the same sort of "political motivations" that, in Berman's rendering, preclude human rights groups from objective evaluations of facts -- or not even facts, necessarily, but "analyses of what they ascertain to be facts," which appears to be a euphemism for facts that make Paul Berman uncomfortable.

In light of Berman's stated willingness to criticize Israel and yet his visible hesitance to actually do so when given an obvious platform, it is virtually impossible not to see his critique of Tariq Ramadan's allegedly wobbly denunciation of terrorism in an ironic light. Of Ramadan, Berman writes (in The Flight of the Intellectuals): "1) Ramadan condemns terrorism. 2) He wants to understand terrorism, though not to justify it. 3) He understands terrorism so tenderly that he ends up justifying it. 4) He justifies it so thoroughly that he ends up defending it." This is almost precisely the path Paul Berman takes in criticizing, but not quite criticizing, and then actually defending, Israel's actions.

This is not to say that Tariq Ramadan does not espouse some rather disturbing views. In perhaps his most controversial moment, during a debate with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2003, he refused to completely reject the stoning of female adulterers, instead calling for a "moratorium" of the practice until a proper committee could be formed to discuss the practice. This is an absurd statement, even if (as is probably the case) Ramadan only said this in order not to lose credibility with the most conservative elements of his own constituency. At some point, firm stances must be taken, and the elimination of stoning, for any reason, is a logical place to start. That Ramadan took a pass instead is certainly worthy of Paul Berman's withering denunciations.

Similarly, Berman's frustration with Western intellectuals for failing to embrace Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian and former Muslim whose renunciation of Islam has proved uniquely polarizing, is entirely understandable. Of Ali, he angrily points out that "a more classic example of a persecuted dissident intellectual does not exist," and to a great extent he is correct. He compiles a convincing case that the very same Western thinkers that admire Tariq Ramadan are remarkably unimpressed with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, perhaps due to their oversensitivity to allegations of Islamophobia. To Berman, their actions indicate that they consider an embrace of a man with possibly murky views on terrorism safer than a similar alliance with the militantly anti-Islamic Ali. (In a recent appearance on The Colbert Report, Ali explained, "In America, but also in Europe, you're told, 'Do not judge. If you judge, you are an Islamophobe, you are a racist.' And I think we need to shed that inhibition. I judge. I would like us to judge. I would like us to say, 'One religion is better than the other. One culture is better than the other. One idea is better than the other.'") But here it would seem that Berman has made the fatal error of conflating Ali's authenticity as a survivor of Islamism's worst practices with her usefulness as a bridge connecting Muslims and the West.

Berman posits the idea that Westerners' often instinctual welcoming of Ramadan, despite some of his questionable or even opaque beliefs, may be due to a phenomenon, studied by French writer Pascal Bruckner, termed "Third Worldism." According to Berman, this paradigm amounts to artificially romanticizing foreign cultures. "...Under a Third Worldist influence," he explains, "even the most brilliant of Western intellects had proved to be absurdly incapable of recognizing everyday people in faraway places as everyday people. It was as if, in gazing at faraway parts of the world, the Western intellectuals could hardly do anything more than blink, and fall into reveries. People in exotic parts of the world were deemed to be spiritually loftier than people near at hand. They were immune to greed. They were selfless. Intuitive, instead of analytic. Sexually more at ease, or even indifferent to sexual urges. Capable of sagacious insights not accessible to the rigid and inhibited Western mind. Materially poor, but morally wealthy...They were Noble Savages. Fantasies, in short."

While the theory is worth exploring in certain contexts, the same is not true in the case of Tariq Ramadan. Nothing particularly otherworldly seems to have been attributed to him; indeed, if anything, it is Paul Berman who, in his indignant state, appears to have transformed Ramadan into a godlike caricature, complete with seductive charm and guile.

Pankaj Mishra, in her review of The Flight of the Intellectuals for The New Yorker, aptly notes that, for all his righteous anger, Berman manages only to prove that "a Muslim with a political subjectivity shaped by decades of imperial conquest, humiliation, and postcolonial failure does not share the world view of a liberal from Brooklyn." That Paul Berman has labored so painstakingly towards such a pedestrian end says much about the Western author, and very little about the Muslim intellectual.